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  • January 2018 : Historic Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Istanbul reopens doors to prayers after seven years of restoration

On the 7th of January, the leaders of two neighbouring countries, Turkey and Bulgaria, reopened the Bulgarian St. Stephen’s Church in İstanbul after seven years of restoration. This church has a unique cast iron structure. Re-opening the Church for use is a remarkable turning point, politically speaking, since this would mark the opening of doors for the non-Muslim minority’s and their rights in Turkey.

Since 2002, Turkey has witnessed consecutive single-party governments under the AKP (Justice and Development Party-Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), which has a pro-Islamic (Sunni) leadership cadre. Initially advancing a pro-democratic agenda, the AKP has since 2010 taken a clear authoritarian turn, instrumentalising a both nationalist and pro-Islamist rhetoric to mobilize support and smother opposition. The new policy preference has influenced the state identity and bureaucracy, and the decision makers have, therefore, started to act without abiding by the rights of non-Muslims in Turkey. Furthermore, these pro-Sunni policy preferences have started to weaken the Turkish understanding of secularism. For instance ; Sumantra Bose, a professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has recently claimed that the “Turkish secular state is dead.” Emphasizing the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) hegemonic Hanafi-Sunni majority policies, he notes that “Kemal’s [modern Turkey’s founding father, credited for secularizing the country] secular state is literally no more than a memory.”

There are some clear indications that the Turkish understanding of secularism might be in danger and that the state does not respect the non-Muslim groups anymore. For example, the budget of the Sunni Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs-Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) has quadrupled under the AKP rule. Diyanet now issues fatwa (religious rulings) on demand and wades into political issues, often backing up the AKP’s pro-Sunni ideology. Turkey’s national school curriculum has been rewritten, leaving out evolution but adding the concept of “jihad”. The number of students enrolled at religious schools, officially known as imam hatip, has risen from 60,000 to more than 1.2 million since 2002. Furthermore, the biggest mosque in modern Turkey is currently being built on a Çamlıca hill overlooking İstanbul. It will be seen from everywhere in Istanbul, President Erdoğan declared. It is just one of the hundreds that have gone up in recent years across the country, where there is almost no new pro-policies and/or positive attempts to provide places of worship for non-Muslims.

However, as noted previously, in this pro-Sunni atmosphere, the re-opening of the Bulgarian Orthodox church and messages of the Turkish leaders were surprisingly positive. In other words, the sentences of the leaders were full of religious tolerance and optimism about the future of the non-Muslims of Turkey.

For instance ; Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım noted that, the “reopening of the church represents an example of the tolerant atmosphere in Turkey.”

Following the speech of Yıldırım, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan highlighted that, “an opening like this carries a significant message for the international audience on my behalf. Istanbul has once again shown the world that it is a city where different religions and cultures exist in peace.” And he added that, “Turkey has supported the restoration of more than 5,000 artefacts in the past 15 years.”

At last, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov declared that, “It is the responsibility of the state to ensure everyone can worship freely,” and added that “efforts to “normalize” relations between Turkey and the EU in 2018 were needed. At this point, it should be noted that Bulgaria has taken over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on Jan. 1, and has, therefore, become an important actor for the negotiation process between Turkey and the EU.

For further details, see France 24.

D 15 janvier 2018    AAhmet Erdi Öztürk

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